Expanding Fields of Vision: Pictures, Plants, and Artistic Authority

Jaya Remond, Ph.D.

During the early modern period, the (re)discovery of nature, locally and overseas, generated in Europe an intense production of images, in a range of formats, from paintings to prints, and from drawings to embroideries. Plants, home-grown and foreign, offered unprecedented promises for profit – as medical remedies, foodstuffs, or collectibles – while their pictorial representations promoted their commercial potential and stood as artistic objects in their own right.  Image-making, particularly drawing, became a powerful tool of control and expertise, an activity practiced by both artists and naturalists (such as for instance, Maria Sibylla Merian, Nicolas Robert, or Charles Plumier).
This project looks at the production of botanical pictures and plant-related artifacts resulting from transregional relations, primarily (but not exclusively) between Southern and Northern Europe as well as via transatlantic exchanges. Focusing on production centers in the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Italy, Expanding Fields of Vision asks how and why botanical imagery became a global site of visual innovation: how did pictures of nature, specifically pictures of plants, become vehicles of epistemic, aesthetic and commercial power? What constituted an effective representation of nature? What were the mechanisms of control that undergirded such types of picture-making? What shape did this pictorial authority take? How did artists emerge as champions of purposeful and systematic vision? How did the exposure to new, unfamiliar plant morphologies foster new ways of seeing and depicting? By analyzing works ranging from herbaria to printed herbals, from botanical drawings to flower paintings, my project casts plants, artifacts, and image-makers as its main protagonists in order to address aesthetic and material practices related to plants in the early modern world. The project attends to modes of creation and transmission as well as to the rhetoricity of making and the authority that arose around production procedures and that continue to shape the way we look at and describe nature today, locally and globally.

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